Over the past two seasons, the Wisconsin Badgers watched both their offensive and defensive coordinators walk out the door to take head coaching positions at other FBS schools.
After the 2010 season, defensive coordinator Dave Doeren left for Northern Illinois, a team he led to an 11-3 record in his inaugural season. Offensive coordinator Paul Chryst was next to depart following back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances, taking the vacant position at Pitt.
As a result, Badgers' head coach Bret Bielema had some replacing to do, and he made defensive backs coach Chris Ash and defensive line coach Charles Partridge co-defensive coordinators. The move seems to have paid off so far. In 2011, the Badgers defense ranked 13th in the nation in scoring defense and 15th in total defense. This season, it's 34th in scoring defense and only allowing ten more yards per game than in 2011.
Bielema was forced into replacement duty once again following the 2011 season, as both Chryst and offensive line coach Bob Bostad bolted for Pitt, with Bostad eventually winding up as the new offensive line coach with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Let’s just say these replacements didn’t go as smoothly.
New Wisconsin O-line coach Mike Markuson was fired after just two games and replaced by Bart Miller, the Badgers' offensive quality control coordinator.
Meanwhile, new offensive coordinator Matt Canada arrived from Northern Illinois, a team that ran a spread offense. Wisconsin had previously been running a pro-style offense, and it still does, but Canada has tried to implement some spread techniques, and it simply hasn’t worked.
The offensive production has been cut in half from a year ago. A team that averaged over 44 points in 2011 now averages 21.5 points per game in 2012. Heisman trophy hopeful Montee Ball is no longer a candidate because of the porous offensive line, which is still trying to find its true identity.
We can say this much: Bielema hit on replacing Dave Doeren; he missed on replacing Chryst and Bostad.
Why is this? Well, for starters, the Badgers looked within its own coaching ranks to replace Doeren at defensive coordinator, and went outside of the university to replace Chryst.
That’s not to say Canada and Markuson didn't have success at their prior schools. Markuson coached in the SEC from 1997-2012 with Arkansas and Ole Miss, and as offensive line coach with the Razorbacks, the team led the conference in rushing for five straight seasons.
With Canada at the offensive helm last season at Northern Illinois, the Huskies finished in the top 12 nationally in total offense, rushing offense and scoring offense.
So why was it a bad idea to hire these guys? Because Wisconsin does things a certain way, and Canada and Markuson didn’t fit the particular mold the Badgers use on offense.
The difficulties with Canada have been well documented with his spread attack ways, but what about Markuson? Apparently, despite his prior success, Wisconsin was used to a certain blocking scheme, and Markuson attempted to completely overhaul this tradition. That didn’t fly with Bielema and the offensive linemen, so it was time for Markuson to pack his bags after a disappointing showing at Oregon State.
And there is a clear disconnect between Bielema and Canada. Prior to the UTEP game, Canada believed that quarterback Danny O’Brien would reprise his role as starter after being pulled in favor of freshman Joel Stave.
However, it was Stave who got the nod, and the Badgers responded with their most successful offensive output of the season.
To give Bielema credit, he hired Doeren in his first season as Wisconsin’s head coach in 2006. But it was former Badgers’ head coach Barry Alvarez who hired Chryst in 2005, the final season before Alvarez took over athletic director duties.
Are the Badgers turning a corner here after their 37-26 win over UTEP? Is Matt Canada finally settling in at offensive coordinator with a few weeks under his belt and Stave as his new quarterback? Is the Badger offensive line back to its old ways thanks to the switch at offensive line coach?
Maybe. Maybe not. But the Badgers rough start can be attributed to two things: below-average offensive personnel and the flurry of new hires Bielema was pressed to make.
It’s clear that losing three offensive linemen to the NFL from a season ago was just too much for Wisconsin to handle, and can you blame them? Perhaps a rebuilding year was in order after back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances. The Badgers only true threat in the passing game is Jared Abbrederis, and Russell Wilson is irreplaceable.
The Badgers were overrated heading into the 2012 season, but a major coaching change is in order. Sure, Wisconsin lacks continuity on offense, but whose fault is that? It’s the head coach’s job to make the right hires and bring in the necessary recruits to fill team needs and perform at a high level.
And yet, I’ll give Bielema a break. After four games, you can’t fire a head coach after reaching back-to-back Rose Bowls, especially after being called upon to replace so much lost talent and fill critical coaching positions.
Bielema also had to hire a new tight ends coach, linebackers coach and wide receivers coach—all in the past offseason. I don’t care how successful your program is, it’s asking a lot for all of those new hires to produce results right away.
Who is at fault for the Badgers' early struggles?
What made Bostad so valuable was not only how well he coached the offensive line, but how he was also the tight ends coach and running game coordinator.
This raises two more questions: What does it say that coaches would follow Chryst instead of stay with Bielema, and shouldn’t we have seen this season coming? I’m unsure as to why so many coaches would rather leave than climb the coaching ladder in Madison, but it’s becoming clear that this season was inevitable.
The major coaching change the Badgers must endure is at offensive coordinator, and that means Matt Canada needs to hit the road.
Yes, the talent drop-off from a season ago is rather staggering, but you still had Montee Ball, you still had Jared Abbrederis, you still had a massive offensive line and you brought in transfer Danny O’Brien, from whom people expected big things. There is simply no excuse to fall from sixth to 102nd in scoring offense—in a single season.
That kind of decline is unacceptable.
The offensive line struggles can’t be pinned on Canada, and let’s face it, you can’t blame the guy for taking a job offered to him by a major football power. Bielema knew Canada ran a spread attack, and yet he still made the hire. That’s Bielema’s fault.
Even with the great hires he has made in the past, a few are going to go awry.
This offense has potential to be elite once again, but apparently Canada doesn’t have the expertise to run a pro-style offense—the type of attack that has made Wisconsin a Big Ten and national powerhouse over the past few seasons.
So let’s just scrap it, start all over and relieve Canada of his duties. It might sound harsh; it might sound rash, but aren’t the Badgers 2-0 since replacing Markuson as the offensive line coach?
Because of all the new hires, it would be difficult for Bielema to look within his own coaching staff for a replacement, and that’s why the Badgers will probably just ride out the remainder of the season with Canada.
With how weak the Leaders Division is (and with the sanctions placed on Penn State and Ohio State) Wisconsin could still very well sneak into the Big Ten Championship Game. Winning it is a different story.
Canada and Wisconsin weren’t meant for each other from the start. Bielema just needs to limit the damage in 2012, assess available coaching prospects following the season and hire a new OC with offensive background that better fits Wisconsin—a coach with plenty of experience in the pro-style offense.
If that hire doesn’t work out, then you can come talk to me about Bret Bielema’s job security.
But, for now, Matt Canada’s time in Madison is running out.